Round Rock ISD faces $14M deficit, burdens from unfunded state laws

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ROUND ROCK, TX (KXAN) —  Round Rock Independent School District explained that pressure from state unfunded mandates has put them in the red by $14.5 million for the 2017-2018 school year.

This summer, district administrators are crunching the budget numbers to plan for the upcoming year while coping with the failure of the recent bond proposal. While the bond funds are unrelated to the money that is allocated in the budget — the bonds’ failure won’t impact the 2017-2018 budget — chief financial officer for the district, Randy Staats, said the failure of the bond package could change the district’s budget calculations in the future.

“We just have to find another way to approach it and go back out to the community,” Staats said. “We have to continue to find ways to meet the needs of the students and facilities, so expanding the capacity within the school district involves adding additional portables to make sure we can accommodate that. We are still anticipating another 500 students for 2017-2018 and we have to find ways to continue to educate them and house them.”

The deficit for 2017-2018 is greater than the deficit in 2016-2017 which totaled $8 million. Staats explained that 50 percent of deficit increase came from expenses written into unfunded state mandates, the rest came from a new middle school and new teachers’ salaries to accommodate the district’s growth.

RRISD is obligated to share some of their money back with the state because of Chapter 41 in the education code. A handful of unfunded mandates also require districts like RRISD to spend money but provide not additional funding to those districts. Staats explained, for example, that in recent legislation has required districts to increase contributions to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas and to provide cameras for special education classrooms, costing the school district over half a million dollars each.

He said that the state funding formulas are not working, as indicated by the fact that four of the past six years RRISD has had a deficit. Staats noted that the district has been able to close the budget deficit every one of those years, and projects to do so for the 2017-2018 deficit as well. RRISD also projects a deficit of $11 million in 2018-2019.

RRISD will be following the special session in the legislature in hopes for school finance reform. Staats said RRISD needs more funds to keep teachers’s salaries competitive, update technology and accommodate the increase of students in their district.

Increases in property values and increases in the number of students on campus have helped bring RRISD extra revenue, but Staats said RRISD will be looking to hold another bond election sooner rather than later. Staats said the district has not discussed a timeline for when that will happen.

“I don’t think it would be wise at this time to push something immediately,” said Patrick McGuinness, one of the co-founders of the Round Rock Parents and Taxpayers Association Patrick. RRPTA was one of the driving forces against the failed RRISD bond in May.

McGuinness said that he and other concerned parents want to see transparency from the district, community involvement in bond discussions, and a reevaluation of the RRISD strategic plan before another bond election happens.

Edmund Buckley, another co-Founder of RRPTA, said their organization is looking into having members run for school trustee positions in 2018. Buckley also stated there are community members who want to put momentum behind changing the district trustee system to an at large system where anyone can run for office to a single member district which would assign seats for each community or region within the school district.

“There are needs within the district, we support those needs,” Buckley said. “But it has to be vetted very carefully, we have to look at costs, we have to look at boundary changes, we need to do a much better job vetting whatever system is in place so that voters have a better understanding of what the needs are and what the cost will be.”

Staats noted that taxpayers often don’t understand about how the state funding formulas factor into what they are being asked to pay.

Round Rock ISD said they pride themselves on their bond management, they noted that their bonds are rated by Moody’s and Fitch credit ratings, Staats said that RRISD is the only school district in Texas to have Tripe A ratings from both.

The district has posted a survey on their website to seek input from community members on their thoughts on what they want to see for future bond proposals. The survey closes on June 10.

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